Sorry to harp on, but I’m not quite yet ready to let the Wembley buzz subside.
Much to the chagrin of the better half and the kids I watched it again yesterday morning, for the first time resisting the temptation of any fast-forwarding to the really good bits. And the pre-match build up included a couple of gems.
No, not ‘Arry and Mark Warburton – although in fairness both were fulsome in their praise of the Canaries – but two interviews: one with Alex Neil and another with Russell Martin and Wes, both of which look to have been conducted in the tranquil surroundings of the team hotel
The Norwich interviews were naturally followed by the Middlesbrough equivalents, with Aitor Karanka chatting to Sky from the comfort of his office, and Grant Leadbitter and Adam Clayton enjoying ‘banter’ with Peter Beagrie in an unglamourous indoor training pitch.
They were all fascinating … and telling.
While I’m no body language expert or psychologist, both gave more than a few clues at to the likely outcome of the play-off final. In fact, I’d go as far to say that Monday’s game was almost won before a ball had been kicked.
Neil was typically relaxed, yet clearly bubbling just beneath the surface was that burning desire to succeed with which we’ve all become familiar.
He spoke of his arrival at Colney: “I sat my stall out immediately. I wanted to make them aware that I meant business … they know not to cross me, there are no grey areas. If you misbehave you’ll be punished, regardless of who you are”.
In other words, ‘my way or the highway’, and it’s worked like a dream.
One of many accusations pointed in the directions of the players in those difficult months pre-Christmas was the believing of the hype.
The ‘best squad in the division’ appeared to believe it would just happen – even minus the required ‘110 per cent’ – and Neil Adams struggled to implement the hard line needed to instil the required levels of desire.
All of which, from the outside at least, made David McNally’s decision to set his stall out for a 33-year old with little managerial experience all the more extraordinary. But he knew. He had done his homework.
In addition to Neil’s steely, no-nonsense persona McNally also discovered – courtesy of having a City presence at every Hamilton game – that he is one who leaves nothing to chance.
He confirmed it in the pre-match interview: “I don’t leave anything unturned … as soon as I see something and it bothers me I deal with it. If not it breeds laziness and contempt and that’s something I don’t like”.
Just ask Martin Olsson.
His eye for detail is another factor that sets him apart from those who have gone before him. When questioned about their manager’s many qualities every City player, to a man, cites his meticulous planning and how every role of every player is made crystal clear.
Back to those lack of ‘grey areas’.
He’s a man clearly comfortable in his own skin and during the interview gave not one inkling of someone who was contemplating losing at Wembley.
The eyes told the story. He had a game-plan, his players knew unequivocally their role in it, and he had an unerring faith in all of those around him to deliver – including the fans.
And he was calm.
Post-match, a Sky Sports microphone was thrust under the nose of an ecstatic Delia who confirmed it: “He exudes calm, he wasn’t at all panicked and it rubs off. He inspires me… and I’m 74!”
If ever there were a glowing reference.
And she was right. That same calmness and assuredness was on show when it was Russ’ and Wes’ pre-match turn in front of the cameras. Not a single hint of fear – only excitement and anticipation.
Russ: “I’d rather be here now with the season extended than already being on holiday for two or three weeks because we have an unbelievable game to look forward to”.
No regret, not a hint of disappointment over missing out on a top two place from the skipper: “We went into the Boro home game with hopes of automatic, lost to them and that was our disappointment over with”.
He admitted they were ‘flat’ after said defeat but clearly the mindset was such that from that moment onward automatic promotion would have been nothing more than a bonus.
Wes too shared a steely eyed gaze of one who was not contemplating Wembley defeat but it was left to the skipper to sum up the desire for play-off final glory: “In 15/20 years when you’re a nobody, and nobody wants to listen, and you tell them about this day you want to come away a winner”.
Both were relaxed, confident, happy but dead-eyed.
The Boro interviews by contrast told a very different story. Karanka, while charming, is clearly a disciple of Jose Mourinho of whom he remains in awe, and Messrs Leadbitter and Clayton came across as giggly, a little twitchy and as still hurting from missing out on the automatics.
Also in contrast to City’s pre-match build up, which Neil kept as normal as possible, was Karanka’s decision to take the Boro players on a ‘get away from it all’ trip to Marbella; Clayton admitting the players had ‘hardly thought about Wembley’ until they landed back in Blighty.
Perhaps they should have.
City, on said flip side, were relaxed about the task in hand – the intensity levels were not cranked up until the eve of the game – but always the focus remained on a Wembley victory. In the words of the manager, he would have been ‘getting into them’ all week.
The differences in approach and demeanour could not have been more stark and, based on Sky’s ‘evidence’, it was no surprise that one team went flying out of the blocks and stayed there while the other stuttered, hesitated and ultimately failed.
And if, in the unlikely event, anyone is in any doubt over just how demanding Master Neil is of his players, I suggest they fast-forward their Sky+ recording of the game to around 88 minutes, just after ‘that’ rendition of On the Ball City.
Alex Tettey, under no great pressure, needlessly finds touch with a pass intended for Lewis Grabban. He incurs the wrath of his manager – big time. His expression (which is on today’s MFW home page) tells a story all of its own. No description necessary.
Hopefully the Neil family are now safely ensconced on a foreign beach on a well-deserved holiday, and Alex can lower the intensity level, but woe betide the kids if that beach ball goes astray.
We’ve got ourselves a good ‘un. Let’s enjoy every single second.
Finally, having trawled through Sky’s coverage several times now I have to commend the unbelievably straight bat played by presenter, Simon Thomas. Quite how a City die-hard was able to ‘hide’ his colours in such circumstances was remarkable and a testament to his professionalism.
Well done that man – yet another City triumph on the most awesome of days.
If you haven’t, please check out MFW columnist, Jon Rogers’ YouTube homage to those who made the trip to Wembley – At The Game #IWasThere. Pure genius.